Have you ever used cotton swabs to clean your ears? If the answer is yes, you are not alone. Many people do this, which is unsurprising given that cotton swabs appear to be the perfect size and shape for the job.
Despite this, most medical professional recommend against using cotton swabs (also known as Q-Tips) to clean earwax and other debris out of the ear. In fact, nothing should ever be placed inside the ear to remove earwax. From punctured eardrums to impacted wax, catastrophes resulting from DIY ear cleaning are all too common.
Firstly – why do ears produce earwax? Also known by the medical term cerumen, earwax is a brownish, waxy substance produced in the ear canal. It is widely believed to clean and lubricate the ear, while also providing some protection against bacteria, fungi, water and insects.
Does earwax really need to be cleaned out? In most cases, earwax makes it way out of your ears naturally. Water that enters the ear canal during showers helps to loosen earwax, as do actions of the jaw (such as chewing and talking). Furthermore, the skin in the ear canal is continually growing outward in a spiral pattern. As the excess skin sheds the earwax goes with it, so most of the time, manually removing earwax is unnecessary. Having said that, some people do experience a heavier buildup of earwax. Excess wax can become compacted, blocking the external ear canal and causing temporary hearing loss. In these cases, a trip to the doctor is recommended. Medical professionals can typically remove wax very easily.
Why are using cotton swabs so risky? While it might be tempting to take matters into your own hands and remove excess wax with a cotton swab, this method can do more harm than good. Easily reached with a cotton swab, the eardrum can be ruptured by even the gentlest of pressure. As anyone who has ever had a punctured eardrum will tell you – it’s a very unpleasant experience. Although the eardrum will heal on its own within a couple of months, in some cases it can lead to permanent hearing loss or tinnitus.
If you think you might have a buildup of compacted earwax, resist the temptation to try and clean it out yourself. Make an appointment with your PCP or an ENT to have it removed.